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Can Soccer Diplomacy Score a Goal?

The World Cup, which kicks off on Friday, is being viewed as an impetus for host countries Japan and South Korea to paper over a century of animosity. But can the sport really reconciliate the two nations?

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Will that black and white ball unite nations?

The upcoming soccer world cup on Friday might be the world’s largest sporting event, eagerly awaited by millions of soccer fans around the world.

The month-long tournament will bring millions of dollars in revenues to host countries Japan and South Korea, providing a much-needed pickup for their slumping economies. Observers are also hoping it will bring relief on another level and ease decades-old tensions between former enemies.

Ever since the momentous decision was taken in 1996 to award the World Cup to both Japan and South Korea, the two rancorous South East Asian neighbours have toned down their often heated rhetoric and diplomatic spats and focussed their energies on pulling off the gigantic sporting event.

Relations between the two nations soured when Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and brutally ruled it till the end of WWII.

Japan’s military excesses and flouting of human rights during its occupation of Korea has left a painful legacy among generations of South Koreans, who have never quite forgiven its larger neighbour.

Football - paving the path to reconciliation?

But several political analysts believe that co-hosting the football world cup has accelerated a recent thawing of frosty relations between South Korea and Japan, precipitated by Japan’s official apology for its colonial past in 1998.

Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Asian Studies (IFA) in Hamburg, Dr Dirk Nabers told DW-WORLD that the World Cup has "definitely had a great impact" on relations between the two countries.

"In the last five years tourist exchange between the two countries has been greatly facilitated, more flights operate between the two countries and it’s become easier for South Koreans to enter Japan – with visas for short-term Korean visitors being done away with", he said.

Liberalisation of cultural exchange

But the biggest change, according to Dr Nabers, has been in the intensified cultural trade and exchange between the two countries.

Korea has suddenly become cool in Japan, with young Japanese lapping up Korean pop music and food and crowding to watch the latest Korean movies.

For its part, the government of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has become more permissive to Japanese culture, which was strictly banned until 1998.

Even Japanese Emperor Akihito, created a stir last December when he admitted on his 68th birthday that Japan’s imperial family was descended from the Kingdom of Paeckche, an ancient Korean civilisation.

Difficult to face painful past

But despite these seeming leaps and bounds in improving relations between the two nations, the brotherly spirit of the soccer tournament will not be able to heal all wounds.

Dr. Nabers says that there are "emotional problems between the two sides as far as collaboration on historical events and interpretation goes".

Less than a year ago, Seoul and Tokyo were at loggerheads over a series of disputes linked to Japan’s wartime colonisation.

The two clashed over a Japanese school textbook seen as whitewashing the country’s wartime actions.

Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine last month, which includes 14 convicted war criminals among its honoured spirits also led to an outcry in Korea.

And Japanese Emperor Akihito will be skipping the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Seoul. It's a decision that Nabers believes is probably for the best.

"Emperor Akihito, from the perspective of South Koreans, is a Class A war criminal par excellence – he exemplifies colonial rule in South Korea and remains the most hated person there," Nabers said. "A hatred that’s transferred from generation to generation."

All is not lost

But despite the bad blood still flowing between the two neighbours, Nabers is confident that the "future is bright for the two countries" and that the present show of harmony between the two will not come to a abrupt halt after the World Cup is over.

"The long-lasting breakthrough in the relations between the two countries has already been achieved. The present level of cultural and trade exchange is on a level that is without precedence in the history of the two nations", he says.

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  • Date 28.05.2002
  • Author Sonia Phalnikar
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2M5d
  • Date 28.05.2002
  • Author Sonia Phalnikar
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2M5d